Essential Readings: Reading Lebanon

Posted on April 10, 2018 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments

Essential Readings: Reading Lebanon

by Maya Mikdashi

[The Essential Readings series is sponsored by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings Modules by submitting or suggesting an “Essential Readings” topic pertinent to the Middle East. Articles such as this will appear permanently on both www.MESPI.org and www.Jadaliyya.com. Email us at info@MESPI.org]

My dissertation studies intersections and impasses between law and citizenship in Lebanon. I do so through examining two phenomena, activism for a secular personal status and/or civil marriage law, and conversion between sects and/or religions in order to make use of different personal status laws—a practice I call “strategic conversion.” Because of this emphasis on law and citizenship, my project is in conversation with literature on secularism and religion, the relationship between law, the state, and nationalism, and practices of citizenship and subjectivity. In addition, I have drawn extensively on archival texts, court documents, and legal texts that detail the Lebanese legal system as well as tose of other states that have plural legal systems. I contrast “paper law” or the law that can be found in books, with “practice law” or the law that I have observed in action at personal status, civil, and criminal courts of both first instance and appeal.

In addition to this personal archive that has enabled me to craft and produce my research and dissertation, there are a number of texts that I keep returning to in order to think about Lebanon more critically. The list is long and multi-lingual, but I in this post I have tried to whittle it down to a list of ten. I failed, and in order to accommodate this failure I have separated the texts by language, which will form the body of another list. Even then, the list below does not approach what we could call “exhaustive” despite the fact that I have cheated and there are more than ten texts on it. The glaring omission are texts on the Ottoman Empire (the work of Selim Deringil has been particularly influential on me) and on the region more broadly, without which the study of Lebanon is at best myopic. In addition, experience has taught me that text itself is an insufficient source of knowledge when thinking about how people practice their lives, how institutions function, and how epistemology is formed.

Despite these shortcomings, I have decided to present this list on Jadaliyya for many reasons. The selfish reason is that it is a useful exercise for me to think about what texts have strongly influenced me and why. The less selfish reason is that I am curious as to how how these lists might differ between graduate students such as myself, scholars, and journalists. The third reason is pedagogical, as writing this list has enabled me to think about how one might teach an introduction to Lebanon. 

Lara Deeb, An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi`i Lebanon. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

In An Enchanted Modern, Lara Deeb examines the “pious modernity” that is practiced in the southern suburbs of Beirut. For Deeb, a pious, or enchanted modern is one in which there is an emphasis on both spiritual and material progress away from what is perceived as tradition. The Enchanted Modern is an ethnographic example of a community in Lebanon that is a popular subject in public discourse about lebanon, yet has not been given much careful and sensitive treatment in academia. Also a text that explores the workinds of non-heterodox and yet mainstream practice of Islam and resistance politics in an Arab country, An Enchanted Modern is a book that is insightfully involved in several conversations simultaneously.

Irene Gendzier, Notes From the Minefield: United States Intervention in Lebanon, 1945-1958. Boulder: Westview Press, 1993.

In Notes on the Minefield Irene Gendzier utilizes previously underused archives to write a critical and innovative account of US involvement in Lebanon post WWII. Gendzier demonstrates that the politics and infrastructures of oil and extraction informed US policies in the region during the independence period, even in countries that are not oil producing, such as Lebanon.

Theodor Hanf, Coexistence in Wartime Lebanon: Decline of a State and Rise of a Nation. London: I.B. Taurus, 1993.

Hanf`s 1993 book is nothing less than an encyclopedia of reference material and analysis for anyone thinking deeply about the Lebanese civil war, its buildup and its aftermath.

Jens Hanssen, Fin De Siecle Beirut:The Making of an Ottoman Provincial Capital. Oxford University Press, 2005.

In Fin De Siecle Beirut, Hannssen explains the Ottoman history of Beirut before “Lebanon.” This history is cirucual to understanding the background picture out of which Beirut came to be a “capital city” of a nation state.

Micheal Hudson, The Precarious Republic: Political Modernization in Lebanon. Random House, 1968.

The Precarious Republic is one of the books that many, if not most scholars of Lebanon will agree should have a place on this list. Reading it today, it is as interesting, engaging and thought provoking (although perhaps it provokes different thoughts) as it was in 1968, the year it was published.

Michael Johnson, Class and Client in Beirut: The Sunni Muslim Community and the Lebanese State, 1840-1985. London: Ithaca Press, 1986.

Johnson`s 1986 text provides a nuanced account of Lebanese politics, economics, and social structures through a study of family history in Beirut, focusing on the Sunni community. In doing so, he conveys a deep sense of a historical period (post WWII and pre-civil war) that deserves more academic attention. By doing so, Johnson develops innovative ways of thinking about the 1958 Lebanese civil war.

Akram F. Khater, Inventing Home; Emigration, Gender and the Middle Class in Lebanon 1870-1920.Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Inventing Home is a beautifully written account of turn of the century migration out of the geographic area that became “Lebanon.” Khater traces the complex ways that migration patterns and circulations produced and impacted society, economy, family structure, and politics in not only the “Lebanon,” but also places that were the recipients of large numbers of migrants, such as New York City.

Ilham Makdisi, The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914. University of California Press, 2010.

In this text Ilham Makdisi brings Lebanon into world history, and the world history into lebanon. She demonstrates how the Eastern Mediterranean was a context in which radicalism grew and was formed. By demonstrating Lebanon`s place in this circulation of intellectual history, Makdisi challenges us to think more critically about what we assume “the region” is.

Ussama Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008.

Both of Ussama Makdisi`s two books on Lebanon (the second one being The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon) are essential to the modern history of that country and its peoples. I have included Artillery of Heaven because it explores the history of religion in the Middle East-a very popular topic- from an innovative angle, the American missionary.

Julie Peteet, Landscape of Hope and Despair: Palestinian Refugee Camps. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

The refugee population has been and continues to be integral to the development and practices of politics, economics, society and state institutions in Lebanon. Because of this, any study of Lebanon is incomplete without incorporating the history of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. After all, 1948 happened only five years after “Lebanon” as we know it today came to exist. Peteet`s work, while focusing on the history of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, reminds us that this history is also a history of Lebanon and vice versa.

Kamal S. Salibi, A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

This book has long been considered one of the definitive histories of Lebanon in the English language. In it, Salibi details Lebanon as a mosaic of interconnected communities, rather than the result of one particular group’s dominance. Significantly, A House of Many Mansions also begins to dismantle the foundational myths of the various Lebanese communities as well as those of the state as a whole.

Elizabeth Thompson, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Colonial Citizens demonstrates the production of gendered citizenship in Lebanon and Syria under French mandate in important and instructive ways. Colonial Citizens also includes a searing and unforgettable account of the WWI era famine that afflicted bilad al-sham, and the effects that the famine had on the Lebanese nation state project. Thompson shows us that both subjects need to be studied further.

Fawwaz Traboulsi, A History of Modern Lebanon. London: Pluto Press, 2007.

In A History of Modern Lebanon Traboulsi writes what has eluded us for a long time, a history of modern lebanon that includes the civil war and post civil war periods. In addition, Traboulsi`s focus on economic history and political economy provides important insights to many of the historical events that are read, perhaps too quickly, as “sectarian.”

Max Weiss, In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi`ism, and the Making of Modern Lebanon. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.

In the Shadow of Sectarianism traces the history of the Lebanese shiite community through struggles around, about, and within the Lebanese legal system. By doing so, Weiss shows us how studies of law can inflect old topics such as sectarianism with new insights.

In addition to these books, there are two articles that I find myself consistently return to when I need to reboot my thinking on Lebanon.

Suad Joseph, “The Public/Private: The Imagined Boundary in the Imagined Nation/State/Community: The Lebanese Case.” Feminist Review 57 (1997): 73-9.

Rania Maktabi, “The Lebanese Census of 1932 Revisited. Who Are the Lebanese?” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 26.2 (1999): 219-241.

[This article was originally published on www.Jadaliyya.com]

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